La Dame aux camélias (Camille)

Chapter 25


ARMAND, wearied by the telling of his long tale which had been frequently interrupted by his tears, placed both hands on his forehead and closed his eyes? either to think or to try to sleep? after giving me the pages written in Marguerite's hand.

Moments later, a slight quickening in his breathing told me that Armand had been overcome by sleep, but sleep of that shallow kind which the least sound will scatter.

This is what I read. I transcribe it without adding or deleting a single syllable:

'Today is the 15th December. I have been ill for three or four days. This morning, I took to my bed; the weather is dull and I feel low. There is no one with me here. I think of you, Armand. And you, where are you now as I write these lines? Far from Paris, far away, I've heard, and perhaps you have already forgotten Marguerite. But be happy, for I owe you the only moments of joy I have known in my life.

I could not resist the temptation of wanting to explain why I behaved as I did, and I wrote you a letter. But, coming from a loose woman like me, any such letter may be regarded as a tissue of lies unless it is sanctified by the authority of death, in which case it becomes a confession rather than a letter.

Today I am ill. I may die of my illness, for I always had a feeling that I would die young. My mother died of consumption, and the way I have lived up to now can only have aggravated a complaint which was the only legacy she left me. But I do not want do die without your knowing how you stand with me ?if, that is, when you get back, you still feel anything for the sorry creature you loved before you went away.

Here is what was in that letter which I shall be happy to write out again, for in so doing I shall convince myself anew that I am vindicated.

You remember, Armand, how startled we were at Bougival by the news of your father's arrival; you recall the blind terror his coming prompted in me, and the scene that took place between the two of you which you described to me that evening.

The next day, while you were in Paris waiting for your father who never came back, a man came to the house and handed me a letter from Monsieur Duval.

The letter, which I enclose with this, begged me, in the gravest terms, to find an excuse for getting you out of the way the following day, and to agree to a visit from your father. He had something to say to me, and was most particular that I should say nothing to you about the step he had taken.

You recall how insistent I was, when you got back, that you should return to Paris again the next day.

You had been gone an hour when your father arrived to see me. I will spare you an account of what I felt when I saw the stern expression on his face. Your father believed implicitly in the conventional truths according to which every courtesan is a heartless, mindless creature, a kind of gold-grabbing machine always ready, like any other machine, to mangle the hand that feeds it and crush, pitilessly, blindly, the very person who gives it life and movement.

Your father had written me a very proper letter to persuade me to see him; when he came, his manner was somewhat at variance with the way he had written. There were enough slights, insults and even open threats in his opening words for me to give him to understand that he was in my house, and that the only account of my life I owed him was dictated by the genuine affection I felt for his son.

Monsieur Duval moderated his tone a little, yet even so he began saying that he could no longer permit his son to go on ruining himself for me. He said I was beautiful, there was no denying it, but however beautiful I was, I ought not to use my beauty to destroy the future of a young man by expecting him to foot the bill for my extravagance.

Now there was only one way of answering that, was there not? and that was to prove that all the time I had been your mistress, no sacrifice had been too great for me to make so that I could remain faithful to you without asking for more money than you could afford to let me have. I showed the pawn-tickets, the receipts given me by people to whom I had sold items I could not pawn; I told your father that I had decided to get rid of my furniture to pay my debts, and that I was determined to live with you without being a drain on your purse. I told him how happy we were. I told him how you had shown me a more tranquil, happier kind of life and, in the end, he conceded that he was in the wrong, and he gave me his hand, asking my pardon for the manner in which he had behaved at first.

Then he said:

"In that case, madame, it shall not be with remonstrations and threats, but with humble entreaties that I must try to persuade you to make a sacrifice greater than any you have so far made for my son."

I trembled at these preliminaries.

Your father drew closer to me, took both my hands in his and, in a kindly voice, went on:

"Child, you are not to take amiss what I am about to say to you. Please understand that life sometimes places cruel constraints upon our hearts, but submit we must. You are good, and you have generous qualities of soul unknown to many women who may despise you but are not to be compared with you. But reflect that mistresses are one thing and the family quite another; that beyond love lie duties; that after the age of passion comes the time when a man who wishes to be respected needs to be securely placed in a responsible station in life. My son's means are slender, and yet he is prepared to make over all his mother left him to you. If he accepts the sacrifice which you are about to make, then his honour and dignity require that, in return, he would relinquish his legacy which you would always have to fall back on should things go hard. But he cannot accept your sacrifice, because people, who do not know you, would misinterpret his acceptance which must not be allowed to reflect on the name we bear. People would not bother their heads about whether Armand loved you, whether you loved him or whether the love you have for each other meant happiness for him and rehabilitation for you. They would see only one thing, which is that Armand Duval had allowed a kept woman ?forgive me, child, the things I am obliged to say to you ?to sell everything she possessed for his sake. Then the day of reproaches and regrets would dawn, you can be sure of it, for you both just as it would for them, and the pair of you would have a chain around your necks which you could never break. What would you do then? Your youth would be gone, and my son's future would have been destroyed. And I, his father, would have received from only one of my children the return to which I look forward from both of them.

"You are young, you are beautiful: life will heal your wounds. You have a noble heart, and the memory of a good deed done will redeem many past actions. During the six months he has known you, Armand has forgotten all about me. Four times I have written letters to him, and not once has he answered. I could have been dead for all he knew!

"However determined you are to lead a different kind of existence, Armand, who loves you, will never agree to the retiring life which his modest means would force you to live, for seclusion is no state for beauty like yours. Who knows what he might do! He has already taken to gambling once, as I discovered, and without saying anything to you, as I further discovered. But in a wild moment, he could easily have lost part of what I have been putting aside this many a year for my daughter's dowry, for him, and for the peace of my old age. What might have happened once might still happen.

"Besides, can you be sure that the life you'd be giving up for him would never attract you again? Are you certain that, having fallen in love with him, you would never fall in love with anyone else? And, not least, will you not suffer when you see what limitations your affair will set upon your lover's life? You may not be able to console him as he grows older if thoughts of ambition follow the dream of love. Reflect on all these matters, madame. You love Armand. Prove to him in the only way now open to you ?by sacrificing your love to his future. Nothing untoward has happened thus far, but it will, and it may be much worse than I anticipate. Armand may become jealous of some man who once loved you; he may challenge him to a duel, he may fight, he may even be killed, and consider then what you would suffer as you stood before a father who would hold you accountable for the life of his son.

"Finally, child, you should know the rest, for I have not told you everything: let me explain my reason for coming to Paris. I have a daughter, as I have just said. She is young, beautiful and pure as an angel. She is in love, and she too has made love the dream of her life. I did write and tell Amand all about it, but, having thoughts for no one but you, he never replied. Well, my daughter is about to be married. As the wife of the man she loves, she will enter a respectable family which requires that there should be nothing dishonourable in my house. The family of the man who is to be my son-in-law has discovered how Armand has been living in Paris, and has declared that the arrangement will be cancelled if Armand continues to live as he does at present. The future of a child of mine who has never harmed you and has every right to look forward to life with confidence, is now in your hands.

"Do you have the right to destroy her future? Are you strong enough to? In the name of your love and your repentance, Marguerite, give me my daughter's happiness."

I wept in silence, my dear, as I listened to all these considerations which had already occurred to me many times, for now, on your father's lips, they seemed even more pressing and real. I told myself all the things your father dared not say, though they had often been on the tip of his tongue: that I was, when all was said and done, nothing but a kept woman, and whatever I said to justify our affair would sound calculating; that my past life did not qualify me to dream of the future; and that I was taking on responsibilities for which my habits and reputation offered absolutely no guarantee. The truth was that I loved you, Armand. The fatherly way in which Monsieur Duval spoke, the pure feelings he aroused in me, the good opinion of this upright old man which I should acquire, and your esteem which I was certain I would have some day, all these things awoke noble thoughts in my heart which raised me in my own estimation and gave a voice to a kind of sacred self- respect which I had never felt before. When I thought that this old man, now begging me for his son's future, would some day tell his daughter to include my name in her prayers, as that of a mysterious benefactress, I was transformed and looked on myself with pride.

In the heat of the moment, the truth of what I felt may perhaps have been exaggerated. But that is what I felt, my dear, and these unaccustomed feelings silence counsels prompted by the memory of happy times spent with you.

"Very well," I said to your father as I wiped away my tears. "Do you believe that I love your son?"

"Yes,"said Monsieur Duval.

"That money does not come into it?"


"Do you believe that I had made this love of mine the hope, the dream of my life, and its redemption?"


"Well, Monsieur Duval, kiss me once as you would kiss your daughter, and I will swear to you that your touch, the only truly chaste embrace I ever received, will make me stand strong against my love. I swear that within a week, your son will be back with you, unhappy for a time perhaps, but cured for good."

"You are a noble-hearted young woman," your father replied, as he kissed my forehead, "and you are taking upon yourself a task which God will not overlook. Yet I fear that you will not change my son's mind."

"Do not trouble yourself on that score, Monsieur Duval: he will hate me."

A barrier had to be erected between us which neither of us would be able to cross.

I wrote to Prudence saying that I accepted Count de N's proposition, and said that she could go and tell him I would have supper with them both.

I sealed the letter and, saying nothing of what it contained, I asked your father to see that it was delivered the moment he got back to Paris.

Even so, he enquired what was in it.

"Your son's happiness,"I answered.

Your father embraced me one last time. On my forehead, I felt two tears of gratitude which were, so to speak, the waters of baptism which washed away my former sins and, even as I consented to give myself to another man, I shone with pride at the thought of everything that this new sin would redeem.

It was all quite natural, Armand. You once told me your father was the most upright man anyone could hope to meet.

Monsieur Duval got into his carriage and drove off.

Yet I was a woman, and when I saw you again, I could not help weeping. But I did not weaken.

Was I right? That is the question I ask myself today when illness forces me to take to my bed which I shall perhaps leave only when I am dead.

You yourself witnessed all that I suffered as the time for our inevitable separation drew near. Your father was not there to see me through, and there was a moment when I came very near to telling you everything, so appalling was the idea that you would hate and despise me.

One thing that you will perhaps not believe, Armand, is that I prayed to God to give me strength. The proof that He accepted my sacrifice is that He gave me the strength I begged for.

During the supper party, I still needed His help, for I could not bring myself to face what I was about to do, such was my fear that my courage would fail me!

Who would ever have told me that I, Marguerite Gautier, would be made to suffer such torment by the simple prospect of having a new lover?

I drank to forget, and when I woke next morning, I was in the Count's bed.

This is the whole truth, my dear. Judge now, and forgive me, as I have forgiven all the hurt you have done me since that day.'




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